“I cannot imagine any condition which would cause a ship to founder. I cannot conceive of any vital disaster happening to this vessel. Modern ship building has gone beyond that.” -Captain Smith, Commander of Titanic regarding the Adriatic, a previous command
It is as hard to believe now as it was then. Walter Lord, historian and author talked of the “if onlys” that haunted him about the sinking of Titanic. “If only, so many if onlys. If only she had enough lifeboats. If only the watertight compartments had been higher. If only she had paid attention to the ice that night. If only the Californian did come…”
“If” that biggest of two letter words that plagues human history looms large in the tragedy of Titanic. The great ship, the largest ship and one of the fastest ocean liners of her time was the victim of her owner and operators hubris. Her builders had no such illusions and Thomas Andrews the Managing Director of Harland and Wolff Shipyards where she was built commented “The press is calling these ships unsinkable and Ismay’s leadin’ the chorus. It’s just not true.”
J. Bruce Ismay
Titanic was designed with the latest shipbuilding innovations, watertight compartments, a double bottom and equipped with wireless. She was billed as “unsinkable” by her owners but those innovations as advanced as they were for her day were insufficient to save her when her Captain and owners chose to charge through a known ice field at full speed. Her watertight compartments did not extent far enough up the hull to prevent water from going over them. Likewise it was never imagined that so many watertight compartments could be compromised.
As far as lifeboats there were far too few. Thomas Andrews, her builder wanted 64 had his arm twisted to bring the number to 32 and Titanic sailed with only 20 of which 4 were collapsible boats smaller than smaller lifeboats. Justifying himself under antiquated regulations (which were written for ships of 10,000 tons) which allowed just 16 boats J. Bruce Ismay the Director of White Star Line told Andrews:
“Control your Irish passions, Thomas. Your uncle here tells me you proposed 64 lifeboats and he had to pull your arm to get you down to 32. Now, I will remind you just as I reminded him these are my ships. And, according to our contract, I have final say on the design. I’ll not have so many little boats, as you call them, cluttering up my decks and putting fear into my passengers.”
If only the Californian had come. Californian was the nearest vessel to Titanic and in easy wireless range. However her wireless was unmanned, she did not have enough operators to man it 24 hours a day. Her lookouts saw Titanic but despite flares being fired from Titanic she never assumed Titanic to be in extremis. The next nearest ship, Carpathia heard the call and made a valiant attempt to reach Titanic but was too late.
If only…so many “if onlys” and so many traceable to one man, the Director of White Star Line J. Bruce Ismay. Thomas Andrews would go down with the ship but Ismay ensured his own survival. Ismay is symbolic of men who allow their own hubris, vanity and power to destroy the lives of many. He is so much like those that helped bring about the various economic crises that have wracked the United States and Western Europe and so many other tragedies.
Ismay and Titanic are symbols of men guided only by their quest for riches and glory who revel in their power and scorn wise counsel or regulation, government or otherwise. Rules don’t apply to them. Some things never change.